HEALTH bosses ducked out of giving a public diagnosis on Priory and Springhill GP practice to Ards and North Down Council this week. Officials from the Department of Health were supposed to go before a council committee on Tuesday night, to detail a full explanation of what’s happening with the threatened surgeries as the deadline to save them closes in. But those officials pulled out at the last minute, telling the council they’re not in a position to say anything at this stage. Health officials even insisted that the letter they sent cancelling their appearance can’t be made public, and blocked the council from handing the letter to the local politicians who made up this week’s committee. That means the situation could only be discussed by councillors at a behind closed doors meeting that’s due to happen just days before the Priory and Springhill deadline is up. The surgeries, which look after more than 14,000 people split between sites in Bangor and Holywood, are set to stop providing care and services at the end of this month.

GP partners currently running the practice are to hand their contracts back to health bosses, meaning that officials have to find new doctors to take it over by February 1st if Priory and Springhill is to keep running. Health bosses are currently in talks with other GPs to take it over, but for the past several weeks have only been willing to state that they’re ‘close’ to working out a deal. Department of Health officials had agreed to inform councillors of what is going on with the practice, and how moves to save it are progressing. They were supposed to send a deputation along to the council’s Corporate Services Committee on Tuesday night – exactly three weeks to the day before the deadline to save Priory and Springhill runs out.

A council official told this week’s meeting that the department had cancelled, however, stating that a senior civil servant had written to the local authority confirming that the deputation wasn’t going to show up. Said the council official: “I’m told there is a wee bit of movement, but they’re not in a position to update us formally just yet. “But hopefully we will be able to update you shortly.” Politicians registered their displeasure with the no-show, with councillor Ray McKimm stating that he was ‘hugely disappointed’ with the department’s decision to pull out. “Every week I have people [contacting me],” he said. “Just yesterday was a lady dying of cancer; she has been told her GP practice is closing, she cannot transfer to anywhere else, there is no correspondence with them, and we’re hugely disappointed we do not have this representation tonight.”

Bringing health bosses to the council over the issue was the brainchild of councillor Hannah Irwin, who echoed Mr McKImm’s views. “It’s extremely disappointing that the department couldn’t show up,” she said. “I appreciate that the talks are ongoing, but people are extremely worried about the future of their GP services. “Given the state our health service as a whole is in, I think that concern is greatly understandable. “I hope we will get an update, positive or otherwise, very soon.” Alderman Stephen McIlveen pointed out that the cancellation letter hadn’t been distributed to councillors for discussion, as would be normal practice. He asked if the letter could be added to the agenda of the council’s full meeting on January 27, which is just four days before the Priory deadline runs out – only to be told the department is insisting the contents of the letter must be kept secret. Said a council official: “We’ve been asked to keep it in confidence just at the minute. “It really depends on the timescale of progress of [negotiations with other GPs]. “We did hope to have it tabled today, but they have declined that request.” The committee resolved to try to table the cancellation letter for discussion at a behind closed doors section of the January 27 council meeting.